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The Singularity is Nearest

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Ray Kurzweil, futurist, inventor, and author of The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, looks forward to an era where humans, in their evolution, will be linked to machines, through electronics and biotechnology. His research and inventions range from music to artificial intelligence, from speech recognition to optics. Kurzweil defines The Singularity as “an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today — the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.”

Kurzweil forecasts the enhancement of our intelligence by merging with non-biological intelligence, sending intelligent nanobots into our brains. In his view, our neurons and the nanobots will communicate on a local area network. We’ll be online all the time directly from our brains and we’ll communicate with other brains through the network.

This quest also goes in the direction of searching for radical life extension – even immortality. In the book co-authored with Terry Grossman, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, they write that through biotech we’re developing the tools to reprogram our biology at the most fundamental level. I have been consulted myself by Terry Grossman about health and life extension, getting interesting hints about how supplements work on my biology.

When Kurzweil was interviewed by What is Enlightenment magazine (now called EnlightenNext), he stated that we are in a stage of intersection of information technology and biology where we understand life, death, disease, and aging as information processes. With our knowledge we can start to reprogram genes, seen as software codes. Merging our biological intelligence with non-biological intelligence will vastly expand human intelligence, where the thinking process will be a hybrid of the two and where the non-biological portion will be much more powerful, giving birth to new and enhanced forms of intelligence. In his own words:

This also relates to longevity, because the reality of longevity for nonbiological systems is different than for biological systems. Right now, the software of our lives is the information in our brains. I estimate it to be thousands of trillions of bytes, which represents all of our memories and experiences and skills and just the whole state of our brain. So that’s software, and it’s inextricably tied up with our hardware. When the hardware of our brain crashes, the software dies with it.

Kurzweil considers our whole lives as information files, which he calls the “mind file.” When the information in our brains becomes independent of the hardware, then we might have reached the nature of immortality.

When he was asked, “What would you say to the idea that it’s unnatural to want immortality? That this quest for life extension goes against the natural cycles of birth and death, and that if we attained immortality, we would have stepped so far outside the natural order that in some sense, we would no longer be human?”, he answered:

In my view, we are the species that seeks to go beyond our own boundaries. Fundamentalism is the idea of putting artificial constraints on what humans can be – defining humans in terms of our limitations rather than by our ability to supersede our limitations. We didn’t stay on the ground, we didn’t stay on the planet, we’re not staying within the limitations of our biology, and we’re not staying within the limitations of our intelligence. The noblest purpose of human life is the creation, communication, understanding, and appreciation of knowledge in all its forms: from different art forms to different levels of expression in science and technology.

Kurzweil says something which is so true. As human beings we have the potential to expand our limited natures. One of the differences between human beings and animals is the conscious use of tools. Since the beginning of history, human culture was shaped by tools and later by media, which influenced both cultural and biological evolution. For humans it is just “natural” to go beyond our limited natures.

Doubtless, intelligence, knowledge and the mind are important aspects of being human and the efforts made by people like Kurzweil are in the direction of preserving and enhancing them, perhaps through downloading our mind to the computer. The mind’s qualities are the most cherished ones of our culture. However, as much as Kurzweil’s view can seem outrageous and revolutionary, the expansion he welcomes for human beings is, in my opinion, quite limited if compared to the actual human potential.

We can expand knowledge and the mind’s contents, we can join our nervous systems with chips or merge it with the Net. But knowledge is not awareness. Awareness can use, can cooperate, and can be supported greatly by knowledge and intelligence, but belongs to another level. Awareness is the goal of spiritual work, which is not alien to our bodies and can’t be expanded by technological tools in themselves. Awareness emerges from the totality of our minds, sensations, emotions, biological nervous systems, and subtle energy channels as well.

Spiritual work in a way is perhaps even more unnatural than that presented by Kurzweil. Naturally, we grow psychologically and spiritually only up to a certain point. The natural forces bring human beings to different stages of cognitive and psychological development. Those forces can create, in the best of cases, a healthy, creative and structured ego, which is something valuable, but is not the end of the story. Human potential is much more than that, nothing less than merging with the Divine and becoming Love and Universal Awareness, to name just some of the many ways it is called.

Besides rare cases of grace where the soul is taken directly to ultimate Realization (in some traditions it would be explained as being due to the karma of previous lives, or in any way, for whatever cosmic lottery), for the rest of us, evolving our souls and psyche means a long and arduous task. This work is “against nature” since we need to abandon our revered ego personality which identifies ourselves as who (we think) we are.

If we follow the Advaita view we can say that there’s no effort to be made since we are all already enlightened, but even the Advaita teachers did spiritual practice before saying that there was no need to do anything.

Wanting to drive our evolution the way Kurzweil does, I see it as a reflection on the biological and mental levels, through computers and biotechnology, of the spiritual quest, but basically staying on the same plane of the mind, insofar as expanded and sophisticated it can be. If we identify ourselves with our minds’ contents, then immortality means preserving those qualities, but if we jump to another level of identification, then the project of preserving our minds won’t be much more than keeping our kidneys in a laboratory, kept functioning by machines. Awareness and the essential qualities (like love, compassion, joy, strength, vision, inner peace) “can be clearly perceived and recognized through the functioning of subtle inner capacities that correspond to physical senses” (A. H. Almaas, Spacecruiser Inquiry, Shambhala, 2002) and can’t be transferred to the Net.

Remember, only that which you can take with you when you leave the body is important. That means, except meditation, nothing is important. Except awareness, nothing is important, because only awareness cannot be taken away by death. Everything else will be snatched away, because everything else comes from without. Only awareness wells up within. That cannot be taken away. And the shadows of awareness – compassion, love – they cannot be taken away. They are intrinsic parts of awareness. You will be taking with you only whatsoever awareness you have attained. That is your only real wealth (Osho, The Book of Wisdom: Discourses on Atisha's Seven Points of Mind Training, Rebel Publishing House, 1993, discourse of March 3, 1979).

Immortality has been pursued much before the availability of biotechnologies. Taoism, for instance, approached immortality through the Outer and the Inner Alchemy. Outer Alchemy dealt mostly with practices to keep the physical body in its form indefinitely. That would have given more time to the body to advance spiritually.

But the goal of Inner Alchemy, more than preserving the body, was to move our awareness from the physical plane toward subtle planes. That way our awareness could be present even after physical death. What Kurzweil pursues, in joining our nervous system with technology, is a reflection limited to the mind’s level of that ancient spiritual quest.

The path of Taoist Inner Alchemy gave emphasis to ethics and integrity, qualities which were basic to the path. The subtle and immortal chi energy is connected to meditation and noble human qualities. Cultivating these inner qualities was – and still is – essential for reaching planes beyond the body.

The Singularity is near, nearest, just here and now, inside.

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About Ivo Quartiroli

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    Excellent Article…

    Though, what Kurzweil’s career & philosophy boasts can be accomplished & experienced without spirituality just like life itself. The brilliance of his vision is how it goes against the mainstream idea that Artificial Intelligence & “Robotics” will always be separate from Human Biology and that these technologies, one day, will be controlled directly with our brains.

  • http://www.EurocriticsMagazine.com Christopher Rose

    My reaction was that what started off as an interesting article on one of the most exciting people on the scientific landscape gradually degenerated into some incoherent “spiritual” babble.

    Statements like “Awareness is the goal of spiritual work, which is not alien to our bodies and can’t be expanded by technological tools in themselves. Awareness emerges from the totality of our minds, sensations, emotions, biological nervous systems, and subtle energy channels as well…

    Naturally, we grow psychologically and spiritually only up to a certain point…

    The natural forces bring human beings to different stages of cognitive and psychological development…

    Awareness and the essential qualities (like love, compassion, joy, strength, vision, inner peace) ‘can be clearly perceived and recognized through the functioning of subtle inner capacities that correspond to physical senses’ (A. H. Almaas, Spacecruiser Inquiry, Shambhala, 2002) and can’t be transferred to the Net” are just simply incomprehensible.

    Oh, and “One of the differences between human beings and animals is the conscious use of tools” is just flat out wrong.

    I guess the author of this had an ulterior motive in writing this piece of work…

  • duane

    Spiritualists tend to use undefined terms to explain their beliefs. Maybe I’m wrong, and the terms are well defined and understood by the cognoscenti. I would really like to know what is meant by “energy,” when used in sentences such as

    Awareness emerges from the totality of our minds, sensations, emotions, biological nervous systems, and subtle energy channels as well.

    What is energy, what is an energy channel, and what is a subtle energy channel? Thank you in advance.

  • http://www.indranet.org Ivo Quartiroli

    @Christopher. Regarding the conscious use of tools, I don’t know if you mean the experiments made with monkeys where Rizzolatti registered the cerebral activity of two macaques after they had learned to grasp food with pliers. He documented the activity in the F5 area and in the area called F1, which in turn was employed in the manipulation of objects. He discovered that there was the same cerebral activity both when the monkeys grasped the food with only the help of their own hand and with the pliers: the neuronal activity is transferred from the hands to the tool, as if the tool were the hand and its extremity were the fingers. This experiment tell me that monkeys can use tools but seems they consider tools as part of their bodies. I still see a basic difference in the way human beings use tools.

    Furthermore, I’d love to know more about the incoherence, rather than just quoting.

    About my ulteriore motive, I don’t really know what you mean.

    @Duane. Right, “energy” can be a buzzword, but still can be defined. Though, the definition of energy have to be matched with a subjective inner state. Feeling or tastes have a similar nature: difficult to define if they are not matched internally. Anyway I’d use one definition by Almaas: “The chakras work with the energy that is the raw material for emotional states… Prana is the energy connected with breathing and hence with vitality… Kundalini is the main energy that fuels the chakra system. It is connected with sexual energy, but it is sexual energy only when operating in the lower chakras. In the heart chakra it is experienced as love; in the head chakras it is experienced as light. Shakti is the same energy but in a different form, that of power. It is experienced as having more of an electrical quality than kundalini.” Of course other spiritual teachers would use slight different words, but basically every tradition recognizes and uses energy (“chi”, “prana”, “kundalini” or whatever name) as a “tool” for self-knowledge

  • http://www.EurocriticsMagazine.com Christopher Rose

    Ivo, no, I wasn’t referring to experiments on any animals. There are lots of documented cases all over the net from many reputable sources of various animals using tools.

    I don’t see the basis for your assertion that those two macaques seem to consider tools as a part of their own bodies, apart from your wish that it be so. Wishful thinking on your part?

    I don’t have anything else to add about your general incoherence as quoted. You seem to be trying to make a case for a mystical dimension to humanity but, like every other mystic, you are forced to resort to meaningless statements that have no basis in fact or even reality, let alone reason or logic.

    Similarly, I don’t accept your claim not to know what I mean about you having ulterior motives. You are clearly trying to weaken the work of Mr Kurzweil by adding meaningless superstitious nonsense about “spirituality”, whatever you mean by that.

    Duane made several good points about your use of words like energy which you completely failed to respond to, except by producing yet more mystical gibberish and a totally incoherent “explanation” of energy.

    Finally, the best “tool” for self-knowledge is openness, something you clearly lack…

  • Brian aka Guppusmaximus

    After reading Ivo’s response above, I would have to side with Christopher that the author had an opportunity to cover one of the most exciting people in Science and wasted that moment on some spiritual babble.

    This experiment tell me that monkeys can use tools but seems they consider tools as part of their bodies. I still see a basic difference in the way human beings use tools.

    In reference to an animal’s ability to understand & utilize tools beyond a basic extension of their own limbs, in this case a monkey, I would suggest reviewing Dr Andrew Schwartz’s work with the animal brain & robotics. In one instance, the monkey realized he was able to control the movement with his thoughts, thus, he stopped drawing with his own and continued with the robotic arm. Animal’s may not have the extensive reasoning capabilities or experience the same emotional plane as Humans but I would have to disagree that they don’t have similar comprehension skills.

  • http://www.indranet.org Ivo Quartiroli

    @Christopher. Is not wishful thinking, sorry.
    The original article about the experiment on monkeys unfortunately requires a subscription, so here’s an abstract and on slashdot too.
    (from slashdot: “a team of Italian neurobiologists have found the roots of the capacity for tool use in the primate brain: the brain treats the tool as part of the body.”)

    Anyway they aren’t my experiments and I don’t have any reason to defend them. I am open to see the truth from whatever source it comes and I don’t have any interest in promoting mysticism nor science, even less weaken the work of Mr Kurzweil.

    As a researcher of the truth, as Kurzweil too is, I have just one goal: deepening my understanding. The spiritual quest accepts and is supported even by science and rationality, which are valuable parts of human qualities. But is not the end of the story.

  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    “looks forward to an era where humans, in their evolution, will be linked to machines, through electronics and biotechnology.”

    How does one look forward to an era we are already in the middle of? There are quite a number of people already linked to machines

  • Brooks

    Mr. Quartiroli,

    You wrote exactly what I have been thinking over the years in regards to Kurzweil’s ideas, along with similar ideas by other transhumanists.

    The mind is not simply an object that can be uploaded or downloaded, it is much more complex and subtle than that. The mind is dependent on sense perceptions, sense objects, and the movement of chi. The subjective perceiver is dependent on objects of perceptions for its existence. Without objects of perception, there is no subject that can perceive. This isn’t a theory or a belief for me, it is something I know from direction experience after practicing yoga and meditation for years.

    Thank you for putting into writing something that certainly needs to be addressed by the transhumanism movement. Transhumanism needs to address the spiritual aspect of mind, which is its most fundamental and real aspect. The transhumanist movement will gain great benefit by addressing this very important topic. In fact, I think it will never realize its goals if it doesn’t accept, embrace, and integrate the spiritual aspect of mind into its understandings and practices.

    On the other hand, maybe I am being naive and not looking deeper into the matter: Is spirituality and the divine aspect of life in direct opposition to the theories of transhumanism?

    Brooks

  • Brooks

    I thought further about what I wrote and wanted to mention one more thing in regards to the statement: “Without objects of perception, there is no subject that can perceive.” Someone might point out that there’s still a mind when someone is dreaming even though it’s not in contact with the 5 external sense objects.

    In response to that, I would say there are still the 5 sense objects of perception even when dreaming. The difference between the mind when its dreaming and the mind when its awake is only a difference in where the sense objects come from. While dreaming, the sense objects come from “within” the body, while awake, they come from “without.”

    How are the dreams generated? By using energy. How are we able to think? By using (mental) energy. What’s another name for energy? Chi or prana.

    Brooks